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Only what you can see exists?

Paul Copan and Kenneth D Litwak critique Naturalism and Scientism from the Christian point of view

Paul Copan & Kenneth D Litwak

Figure Image
photo: iStock

Most children read Dr Seuss at some stage.

In Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, a mean-spirited kangaroo opposes the elephant Horton’s conviction that small persons can exist in an invisible world on a flower Horton found. Despite Horton’s conviction about what he clearly heard, the kangaroo announces, ‘If you can’t see, hear, or feel something, it doesn’t exist!’

This pretty well summarises the view of many scientifically-minded academics on campuses today. They are opposed to the postmodern mood embraced by many of their peers, but they venture into another form of academic dogmatism.

Science alone?

During the Protestant Reformation, renewed emphasis was give to certain doctrines that had been diminished over the centuries: sola scriptura (‘Scripture alone’ is ultimately authoritative and, when push comes to shove, trumps church tradition) solus Christus (‘Christ alone’ is the basis of our salvation), sola gratia (God’s ‘grace alone’ is the source of our salvation) and sola fide (the means of salvation is ‘by faith alone’ rather than human effort). Well, in the academy, we regularly encounter the quasi-religious dogma of sola scientia, that ‘science alone’ can give us knowledge.

Naturalism’s tenets

It might help to step back for a moment to look at the broader worldview of Naturalism so that we can better see where Scientism fits in. Naturalism has three central tenets. First, its view of reality (metaphysics) is that matter is all that exists. Second, its view of caus-es/causation (etiology) is that all events are physically determined by prior physical events going all the way back to the Big Bang. And third, its view of knowledge (epistemology) is that knowledge is only (or is best) acquired through the scientific method. So Scientism expresses the episte-mological aspect of Naturalism.

The noted Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, a Naturalist, believes that science can help us answer ‘why we are here and where we came from... and the goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in’. The New Atheist Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University, insists: ‘Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not’. Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin claims that science is ‘the only begetter of truth’. Indeed, he insists that science must be committed to the assumption of absolute materialism – that matter alone exists and that only material explanations and causes are permitted. His concern is that ‘we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door’.

Questionable assumptions

Of course, this makes certain questionable assumptions about the nature of science. For example, if you restrict science to only material explanations, then any supernatural explanations for, say, the beginning of the universe or the remarkable bio-friendliness of the universe, will be ruled out automatically.

This assumes that an inherent conflict exists between science and the Christian faith. As the philosopher Alvin Plantinga rightly argues, the Christian faith and science conflict superficially but are deeply congruent (fitting together) whereas Naturalism and science are superficially congruent but, in actual fact, deeply conflict.

How so? Modern science, we’ve noted, arose in the context of biblical theism, with its belief in a rational God who made reasoning humans in his image as well as an orderly, predictable universe that can be studied and understood. By contrast, Naturalism’s context of mindless, deterministic, materialistic, valueless, purposeless, nonrational processes conflicts with the production of rational beings who can freely reflect on, study and understand such a universe.

Definition of science

So how do we go about defining science? For philosophers of science, these are choppy waters. However, we think a fair-minded, working definition of science is this: it is the attempted objective study of the natural world/natural phenomena whose theories and explanations do not normally depart from the natural realm. The key phrase is ‘do not normally depart from’. Now, some scientists will insist that science studies what never departs from the natural realm. But clearly, this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. After all, how could observations from the physical world rule out nonphysical causes, such as a miraculous event like Jesus’s bodily resurrection? Why think that science requires all natural phenomena to be explained only by prior natural causes? Instead of asking what is the best natural explanation, we should take this tack: what is the best overall explanation for this natural phenomenon? That is, does the evidence point us in the direction of supernatural or merely natural explanations?

Scientism’s problems

The problem with the assumption that science requires only natural/material explanations is not science but Scientism. What is Scientism? It is the assumption that the material world is all there is and that science is the only – or perhaps, best – means of verifying truth claims; all claims of knowledge have to be scientifically verifiable.

To go about doing science this way is a skewed methodology. Scientism is a philosophical position; it is not the result of scientific research. After all, how could one know scientifically that the material world is all there is?

Another problem with Scientism is that it is arbitrary. Why think all truth claims have to be scientifically (empirically) verifiable? What about philosophy or theology or mathematics? One atheist philosopher claimed that there cannot be a cause of the origin of the universe since ‘by definition the universe contains everything there is or ever was or will be.’ This engages in question begging, assuming what one wants to prove. The assumption that the physical world is all the reality there is arbitrarily excludes the realm of God, objective ethics and duties, free will, the soul, and objective purpose and meaning to life. Science can tell us a lot, but it can’t tell us whether the soul exists, the will is free or that humans have intrinsic rights.

Scientism is also self-refuting. By making a philosophical, not a scientific, claim, it refutes or undermines itself. Think about this: how can we scientifically verify that only scientifically verified statements are true or meaningful? The very articulation of the statement actually undercuts itself. It’s like saying, ‘I can’t speak a word of English’. We simply cannot validate science by appealing to science.

Furthermore, Scientism is reductionistic; that is, it reduces all reality to the physical, which skews our perspective on reality. The famed psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) once said: ‘If you only have a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail’. And if you look at reality as purely physical, then the only tools to interpret reality will be physical. Scientism requires stepping outside of science in claiming that you cannot step outside science.

Christ the Saviour of science

In addition, as we noted earlier, modern science has its roots in biblical theism, not secularism or atheism. To say that the Christian faith and science are opposed is not accurate. As Stanley Jaki, a physicist and Benedictine priest, pointed out, ‘Christ is the Saviour of science’. That is, the unique theological resources of the Christian faith helped give birth to modern science. Even though Galileo is highlighted as an honest, courageous observer whose faith was in stark opposition to the scientific evidence, he himself was committed to a no-ultimate-conflict view between them. He said in a letter to the Duchess Kristina in 1615 that when the Scriptures are properly interpreted and science properly understood, these two books of God’s revelation will ultimately not contradict each other.

This article is an edited extract from The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas by Copan and Litwak, published by IVP, ISBN 978 1 783 591 282, and is used with permission.